Toloki earns his living as a mourner in a large, violent city in South Africa. He is paid to comfort families who have fallen victim to violence, racial hatred and poverty. Toloki – the main character in the novels Ways of Dying (1995) and Cion (2007) by the author Zakes Mda – comes to life in the dance performance Cion; Requiem of Ravel’s Bolero by the internationally acclaimed dancer and choreographer Gregory Maqoma. Taking inspiration from Toloki, and with eight dancers from his Vuyani Dance Theatre, Maqoma examines the dark history of his native country. As a preliminary study for Cion, Maqoma made Requiem Request at William Kentridge’s The Centre for the Less Good Idea, which can be seen at Frascati theatre. Maqoma used the Bolero as musical inspiration in this piece.
In 1995 the South African writer Zakes Mda published his novel Ways of Dying. Mda had already been living in the United States for some time, but his focus was on the violence and large number of deaths
that took place during South Africa’s transition to democracy. The novel’s protagonist, Toloki, is a professional mourner who goes from funeral to funeral to offer consolation to the stricken families. Just over a decade later Toloki featured again in Mda’s novel Cion, which is set in the United States where the professional mourner is now based because of ‘the lack of interesting deaths in a South Africa that has become a stable society’. In this novel Toloki lives with a family descended from runaway slaves and during the year he is with them unravels their hidden history.
In Cion: Requiem of Ravel’s Bolero the South African dancer and choreographer Gregory Maqoma uses the character of the professional mourner to relate himself to the recent history of his native country. Because of the developments there, and because of the political dynamics of the whole world, Maqoma’s point of view is that everyone is now a professional mourner. In Maqoma’s interpretation Toloki discovers death again in a contemporary context, in a world in which death is not a natural phenomenon but is caused by ‘decisions of others over the other.’ We ‘mourn the death by creating death’, according to Maqoma. Just as others use hashtags for critical commentary, Maqoma uses art to comment on the way we treat each other as human beings. Nevertheless Maqoma believes this is an optimistic work that counters the dark cloud, giving us the hope that humanity still exists, even in our darkest times.
Maqoma draws his inspiration not only from Zakes Mda’s novels, but also from the work of the French composer Maurice Ravel. He has previously used Ravel’s most famous composition, the Bolero, in Requiem Request, a work he developed in William Kentridge’s The Centre of the Less Good Idea. This work can also be seen at this year’s Holland Festival. Because of its structural simplicity, coupled with its insistent and haunting qualities, Bolero feels very African to Maqoma. To emphasize this African character Maqoma has changed the usual instrumentation, replacing this with voices, chanting and church hymns, sung by a choir of Isicathamiya singers. Isicathamiya is South African Zulu in origin and is a harmony-based style of singing which can best be compared to a cappella. This style developed from, and contrasts with, the loud and powerful Mbube style of singing. The name Isicathamiya also refers to the tightly choreographed dance moves the singers make while performing.
The reworking of the music lifts the choreography into a space of love and hate, a fight for survival, creating a bond with those that have died, as the professional mourner once did. In Maqoma’s words: ‘The Requiem of Ravel’s Bolero is our healing, the song to the departed souls, to pause for a second and think about life, what it means. Maybe, just maybe, we can value life again’.
South African dancer, choreographer and teacher Gregory Vuyani Maqoma (1973) is regarded as one of the most talented creative artists of his generation. He grew up in Soweto, and first started
dancing in the late 1980s, as a way of escaping the growing political tensions of his birth-place. He started his formal dance training in 1990, with Moving into Dance Mophatong, and in 1994 won the FNM Vita Pick of the Fringe prize for his first choreographic creation for this company. In 1999 he was awarded a scholarship for further studies at P.A.R.T.S. with Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker. In the same year he also founded his own dance company, the Vuyani Dance Theatre. His career really took off after this and many prizes and awards followed, including in 1999, 2001 and 2002 the FNB Vita Choreographer of the Year award, and in 2006 and 2007 the Gauteng MEC Award for Beautiful Us and Beautiful Me. In 2012 he received the Tunkie Award for Leadership in Dance and in 2014 the New York City Bessie Award for Dance. In 2017 he was the recipient of the prestigious French title of Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. Maqoma enjoys collaborating with other artists, and has frequently done so, for example with Akram Khan and the London Sinfonietta, singer-songwriter Simphiwe Dana, and the theatrical creator Brett Bailey. Maqoma was an associate artistic director of Moving Into Dance Mophatong and the Dance Umbrella festival, and from 2004 to 2010 was responsible for the Dutch Afrovibes festival. Gregory Maqoma is performing at the Holland Festival 2019 in his own choreographic pieces Beautiful Me, Requiem Request and Cion:A Requiem of Ravel’s Bolero. He is also the choreographer of this year’s opening show, The Head & The Load.
Vuyani Dance Theatre was founded by Gregory Vuyani Maqoma in 1999 and has become one of Africa’s most successful cutting edge groups. Vuyani Dance Theatre has a dynamic approach that mixes the rhythms of Africa and its urban style, music and culture with their European counterparts. The themes it tackles are important to young people and are conveyed in music and dance styles that match the lives of their performers. But history is crucial too, and is always the starting point for research and development. Vuyani Dance Theatre’s dynamic and theatrical approach embraces the many tastes and cultures that determine South Africa’s unique character and is a clear expression of Johannesburg’s cultural cocktail. The group has performed worldwide in more than 100 cities, from Europe to the United States, Asia and New Zealand. Vuyani Dance Theatre finds it important to collaborate with artists from the whole world because this leads to exceptional mutual enrichment. Since 2004 the company has been working on an extensive development programme. Young people are intensively trained in-house in dance and choreography, thus enabling new talent to move into the company. There is also an extensive outreach programme for primary schools in the township, with twice-weekly lessons from company dancers. This means that talent can be spotted when the children are still young and can be given an early chance for further development.
- concept, choreography, dance
- Gregory Maqoma
- supporting movement analyst, dramaturgy
- Shanell Winlock
- rehearsal assistant
- Lulu Mlangeni
- musical direction, composition
- Nhlanhla Mahlangu
- composition assistant
- Xolisile Bongwana
- set design, technical direction
- Olivier Hauser
- Mannie Manim
- Wesley Mabizela
- Ntuthuko Mbuyazi
- sound engineer apprentice
- Katleho Mokgothu
- Otto Andile Nhlapo, Roseline Wilkens, Thulisile Binda, Smangaliso Ngwenya, Katleho Lekhula, Itumeleng Tsoeu, Lungile Mahlangu, Ernest Balene, Nathan Botha
- Thabang Mkhwanazi, Sbusiso Shozi, Simphiwe Bonongo, Xolisile Bongwana
- Vuyani Dance Theatre
- The Market Theatre
- founded by
- The National Lotteries Commission
- media partner
- Creative Feel
- media sponsorship
- Kaya FM
- author of Cion
- Zakes Mda